Sundance Interview: Molly Manning Walker on How To Have Sex
It’s been a successful few years for Molly Manning Walker. The British documentary writer-director won the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival 2023 for her narrative feature debut, How To Have Sex. She followed that up by bringing the film to Park City this year, where—despite the chilly weather—it received a warm reception.
“We could never imagine that it would effect so many people,” Walker says of the audience reaction to the film. How to Have Sex follows 16-year-old Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce, Get Even) as she joins her friends, Em (Enva Lewis) and Skye (Lara Peake, Mood), on a summer holiday at a Cretian resort. Tara is the only virgin of the group and her friends are determined that she will lose that status on this trip, whatever it takes. When Tara does find herself having a sexual encounter on the beach with Paddy (Samuel Bottomley, The Last Rifleman), it’s not exactly magical. It’s not even entirely consensual and Tara is left to process what happened for the rest of the weekend while her friends remain oblivious to her pain. “I went on lots of these holidays as a teenager, and only on reflection did I realize how kind of fucked up they were,” Walker says. ”How we pressed each other into these situations that really were uncomfortable for everyone.”
“I went on lots of these holidays as a teenager, and only on reflection did I realize how kind of fucked up they were.”
These experiences inspired Walker to tackle a story that deals with issues of sexual politics, consent and the damage we do to ourselves and others when expectations and a lack of education steer us in the wrong direction. While the title How To Have Sex may leave some expecting a different movie entirely, it’s a deliberately chosen moniker. ”It’s about the fact that we learn how to have sex wrong,” Walker says. “That’s how we genuinely thought you had sex when we were teenagers.” The film thoughtfully explores the power dynamics in sexual situations and the roles and behaviors that young men and women gravitate toward due to social conditioning. “I think often sexual assault is pictured in a very violent, horrific way,” Walker says. “I think what is often missed is the stuff that happens between people that are together, or that that is very subtle and that we don’t almost recognize as an assault in the moment. And then in reflection during, especially as women, I think often we’re trying to make everything okay.” How To Have Sex has struck a chord with a lot of people and Walker talked to countless woman of all ages who found that the film resonated with them and helped them to process things that they’d never been able to really talk about before. “But I think what’s been the most powerful thing is lots of men recognizing that they’ve learned how to have sex wrong, and that there needs to be a better conversation around it,” Walker says.
“Every time we thought we found someone who was perfect for the role we we brought her in with them, so we built the friendship group out in quite a, like, organic way.”
One of the most crucial elements of Walker’s vision for How To Have Sex was getting the casting right. The key piece of this was in the casting of Tara, which proved to be surprisingly easy. “Luckily, it was one of the first tapes that came in to me as performance,” Walker says. Mia McKenna-Bruce, who is perhaps best known for her television roles on Tracy Beaker Returns and The Dumping Ground, stood out as the perfect Tara from the moment her tape was first viewed, and once Walker knew she had her lead in place, the rest of the cast was crafted around her. “I put all my hopes and dreams on her, to be honest,” Walker says. “Every time we thought we found someone who was perfect for the role we we brought her in with them,” she explains. “So we built the friendship group out in quite a, like, organic way.” Walker felt it important to create an atmosphere on set that was conducive to the story of young friends hanging out in a loose, free environment. The rehearsal period prior to shooting lasted eight weeks, and the cast would get together for Sunday football games and evening barbecues. “The dynamic was really important to us,” Walker says.
A political activist turned filmmaker, Molly Manning Walker is already making a social impact through the language of cinema, as How To Have Sex is sparking important conversations everywhere it played in Europe, and now in the United States. While Walker hasn’t chosen her next project yet, she’s set a high bar for herself with this thoughtful and sensitive piece of storytelling. It’s a tough act to follow, though the artist seems more than up to the challenge.